By Ed Mechmann
It is very difficult to talk about racism, particularly at this highly polarized and emotionally fraught time. Some would say that people like me, a man descended from Europeans, cannot do so without confessing my “white privilege”. I believe that a productive conversation is possible, but we need to have some clarity about the subject. With some trepidation, I would like to offer my thoughts.
The False Idea of “Race”
The modern notion of “race” developed as a pseudoscientific justification for colonialism and the subjugation of native peoples, mainly in the Americas and Africa. It proposed that every person belongs to a fixed, unchangeable group that invariably determines their physical and even moral characteristics. It also holds that some groups are superior to others.
This can be seen in its purest forms in the “scientific racism” of the Nazis, the “white supremacy” of American slave-owners and the defenders of Jim Crow, and the drive for “racial hygiene” by the eugenics movement. It is a thoroughly evil concept, a monstrous lie born from a sinful lust to dominate others. It has no basis in science or in reason.
This is not the same thing as ethnicity. That means a sense of membership in a group that shares traits like language, values, religion, customs, cuisine and history. All of us have some kind of ethnic identity, and many of us have more than one. But it is not a fixed destiny that forever defines us. One can freely choose to assimilate into another ethnicity by adopting their way of life – as my Irish ancestors did when they came to America – or holding onto it.
The Christian View
The concepts of fixed distinct “races” and racial superiority are utterly incompatible with a Christian understanding of the nature of the human person. We are all equal, made in the image and likeness of God, regardless of any outward appearance, geographical residence, ethnicity or cultural heritage. We are united as children of God in one human family.
When Jesus became man, he sanctified human nature and restored the universal fraternity that had been broken by sin. As the Second Vatican Council taught, “One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth.” (Nostra Aetate 1)
The U.S. bishops have called out the sinfulness of racism very clearly:
“Racism arises when—either consciously or unconsciously—a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard. When this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful. Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love.”Open Wide Our Hearts
The Legacy of Racism
Unfortunately, there are many people who hold irrational and evil beliefs about “race”. They see different ethnicities and cultures and mistake them for fixed biological identities (this is usually the error of Reasoning from Ideology). They take characteristics or behaviors of individuals and project them onto an entire group (this is the Fallacy of Composition and Stereotyping). Or they assign to individuals the characteristics they believe are possessed by the group (this is the Fallacy of Division). They view membership in the group as inescapable and unchangeable (which is the error of Determinism). These judgments about other groups are of course always negative, and they view their own group as inherently superior. And, as a result, they feel free to mistreat or use violence against others purely because of their perceived inferiority.
In our nation’s history these deplorable attitudes have been primarily directed by those of European ancestry against African Americans and indigenous Native Americans. Darker skin color or even “one drop” of the “tainted” blood has been seen as sufficient to incur the curse of perpetual inferiority. This is the lie of “white supremacy”. This ideology of subjugation has also been repeated against every wave of new immigrants, from the Irish to the Italians to the Jews to the Chinese to the Puerto Ricans and on and on and on. We see it very strongly now in the hostility towards Mexican and Central American migrants and people from Muslim nations.
This is deeply embedded in American history, law and culture. It has often been called our “original sin and it has created powerful structures of injustice in our society. The legacy of slavery and segregation continue to have substantial negative effects on where African-Americans live, the schools they attend, the jobs they have, the way they interact with law enforcement and the courts, and on and on. Americans of European ancestry have benefited from this same legacy. This is what people refer to as “systemic racism” and “white privilege”.
Caution about Collective Guilt
But in recognizing this, we have to be very careful not to impose some kind of “collective guilt” on people for the sins of others. The Church has flatly rejected that idea (see, for example, the rejection of the idea that Jewish people are collectively guilty of the death of Christ, Nostra Aetate 4). It is, in effect, the same kind of error that leads to racism – treating people as merely part of a group, rather than as individuals, and judging them negatively.
The Catechism makes clear that I am responsible for the sins of others only if I personally cooperate in them “by participating directly and voluntarily in them; by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them; by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so; by protecting evil-doers.” (Catechism 1868) So the mere fact that I live in a society with structures of racism – and, frankly, have benefitted from them – does not make me personally guilty of the sins that created them. The notion of some kind of general “white guilt” is just as false as any idea of racial superiority.
To hold otherwise would also make me answerable for other structures of sin in our nation like legalized abortion, sexual license, gender ideology, harsh treatment of migrants, or unjust wars. I do not have to go to Confession for the sins of slave owners, Jim Crow enforcers, or lynch mobs.
What Must be Done
However, I still have a clear duty to do whatever I reasonably can to eliminate these structures of sin. I cannot evade my own responsibility by blaming those in the past and ignoring the lasting effects of their sins. I certainly cannot stand by mutely while evil is being committed in our present day or pretend that those are just the acts of a few “bad apples”.
Every one of us has a personal responsibility to fight against the structures of sin in our society. Whether it’s the legalized destruction of unborn children or the perpetuation of racist attitudes and behaviors, I must actively resist them. Our bishops have proposed some concrete steps to take to fight racism, and I’ll discuss them in my next post.
As I said at the beginning, eliminating racism requires clear thinking and a foundation in the truth. The goal is to change our hearts so that we will treat everyone as a fellow child of God, regardless of their culture, appearance, or ethnicity. With that firm foundation, we can then build a structure of virtue that will help everyone make good moral decisions about how to treat our brothers and sisters.